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CARA WATCHED HELPLESSSLY as Ascension's security emerged from the shadows and greeted her at the base of the stairs. When they stripped her of the wand, Damion made sure that she recorded his condescending smirk. And again, when he clutched the artifact and brandished it in the air between them. His eyes lit with an unearthly glow, whether from the metallic gleam reflecting across his face or greed, she could not be sure.

"You. The two of you. Come here." Damion lifted his chin to the pair of scientists standing idle. "I think Dr. Criest needs a little break." As soon as the he released the wand into their hands, he started barking out commands. "Now get to work."

The shorter of the two failed to make eye contact, but managed to stutter, "O-o-okay. It's obvious that we just need to line up the picture." Without moving his lips, he whispered to the scientist standing next to him. "Any ideas?"

Scared stiff, the response came as a rigid shake of his head that traveled throughout his entire body.

Short, nervous guy slid back a step. "Ah! Dr. Greely has volunteered to lead us in the first move." Short failed to contain a smile, watching the frozen man realize he'd been struck by the Titanic. He patted him on the shoulder. "Now, now, Dr. Greely. We can deliberate as to what the first move will be, but it will be you executing the task. Let's get to work."

Did this scientist not know that Blax would surely put him up as the next test subject if anything went awry? Besides, these things are always loaded with bobby-traps in books and in movies. Cara hugged Loren. They managed a slight step back, away from the ladder, met by an automatic rifle raised at them point-blank.

After discussing where to start, sensibly on the perimeter of clearly what was a circular image scrambled beyond recognition, the scientists chose north as their origin.

Dr. Greely stuck the diamond of the silver side of the wand into a slot within a golden circle. Clunk. Cara felt a vibration ripple through the floor. The chamber grew silent. A series of clicks snapped overhead. The scientist gulped, wet splotch spreading down his slacks as he knelt on hands and knees. He turned the round puzzle piece clockwise with the wand. A quarter turn. Nobody breathed. Half rotation, and—

Steam erupted from above. A shower of liquid blasted down from a camouflaged hole in the ceiling, raining over the scientist on the ground. He covered his face, but too late. Chemical mist swirled from his clothes and exposed skin, growing into a dense fog. A blood-freezing scream echoed in the room for three heartbeats, then ceased.

When the spray tapered off and the haze cleared, a heaping mass remained. The clump of what clothes survived steamed, lying over a twitching stump of white and pink flesh stripped to the bone. The acid continued work, but the scientist stopped jerking after a final, pain-filled moan. Cara covered Loren's eyes.

The other scientist, now next-in-line, doubled over and lost his breakfast. He rocked back on his heels and wiped the bile from his mouth, gazed overhead. There, black matter bubbled, sizzling and smoking around the mouth of shower port. "Hidden traps."

Cara rubbed at the smudges on her fingers.

Damion lost two additional scientists before he became unwilling to sacrifice any others. Cara identified the unfortunates as prominent astrophysicists, but the few others remained a mystery.

Probably here to serve a specialized purpose, just like I did earlier. Oh, no!

Cara squeezed Loren's hand gently, only for the gesture to be returned ten-fold. Her niece's arm shivered as Damion locked his gaze on them.

"There, Dr. Criest, now you have a good working knowledge of how it operates." He placed a hand over his heart and lowered his head the slightest notch. "As I said, everyone has suffered losses, but it is for the good of humanity. Sacrifices now for no more loss, ever."

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